WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Jan. 8 decision to reverse a lower court’s ruling, which had been in favor of an injured woman auto worker, was sharply criticized by defenders of civil rights for disabled people. They branded it another step to undermine the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Andrew Imperato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), blasted the decision as “another in a series of decisions where the Supreme Court has inappropriately restricted the scope of who is disabled enough to have protections under the ADA.”
Imperato said, “The issue in an employment discrimination case is not the degree of disability but whether the person was discriminated against.”
The decision came in the case of Ella Williams, an auto worker at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky. plant, who suffers such crippling repetitive stress injuries to her hands and wrists that she is unable to perform her duties on the assembly line. A court rejected her lawsuit seeking relief under the ADA, but an appellate court in Cincinnati reversed the lower court and ruled in Williams’ favor.
Toyota appealed and in a 9-0 decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. O’Connor claimed that Williams failed to prove she is disabled in functions “central to daily life” such as combing her hair or brushing her teeth and is therefore not protected by the ADA.
“These cases are about whether victims of disability discrimination get their day in court,” Imperato told the World. “Ignoring Congress’ explicit use of an inclusive definition of ‘disability’ in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court today and in earlier decisions has gone out of its way to narrow the definition of ‘disability’ and thereby limit access to the courts for victims of discrimination.”
Imperato expressed amazement that the high court would brush aside the fact that Williams is unable to perform her duties on the assembly line.
“Today’s ruling needs to be considered in the context of the staggering fact that more than two-thirds of working-age disabled people are not working,” he said.
“When the court makes it harder for disabled workers to get needed accommodation and remain employed, it exacerbates a serious social problem of unemployment and underemployment among adults with disabilities.”
More than 54 million people suffer from some form of disability and the ADA was intended to outlaw discrimination against them in employment and all other areas of life. Imperato cited a string of decisions by the Supreme Court and lower courts disqualifying many disabled people from ADA protection including victims of diabetes, epilepsy, schizophrenia, clinical depression and those who have sustained amputation of limbs.
“Basically, we have a Supreme Court that just does not ‘get it.’ They do not recognize the idea of disabilities as a civil rights issue,” Imperato said. “We don’t have a Thurgood Marshall who understands that people with disabilities face discrimination. We need more judges who accept a civil rights model of disabilities.”
The AAPD, he said, is working to build a strong cross-disability coalition to educate Congress and the Bush administration on the issue. One element of the strategy is registering disabled people to vote and urging them to run for political office in this year’s elections. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a paraplegic, showed the way.
“It’s not accidental that some of our most effective leaders have been disabled,” Imperato said. “It’s about elevating our own leaders and encouraging them to run.”